Melencolia I is a 1514 engraving by the German Renaissance master Albrecht Dürer. It is an allegorical composition which has been the subject of many interpretations. One of the most famous old master prints, it has sometimes been regarded as forming one of a conscious group of Meisterstiche (“master prints”) with his Knight, Death and the Devil (1513) and Saint Jerome in his Study (1514).
The engraving measures 24 × 18.8cm.
The work has been the subject of more modern interpretation than almost any other print, including a two-volume book by Peter-Klaus Schuster, and a very influential discussion in Erwin Panofsky‘s Dürer monograph. Reproduction usually makes the image seem darker than it is in an original impression (copy) of the engraving, and in particular affects the facial expression of the female figure, which is rather more cheerful than in most reproductions. The title comes from the (archaically spelled) title, Melencolia I, appearing within the engraving itself. It is the only one of Dürer’s engravings to have a title in the plate. The date of 1514 appears in the bottom row of the magic square, as well as above Dürer’s monogram at bottom right. Suggestions that a series of engravings on the subject was planned are not generally accepted. Instead it seems more likely that the “I” refers to the first of the three types of melancholia defined by the German humanist writer Cornelius Agrippa. In this type, Melencholia Imaginativa, which he held artists to be subject to, ‘imagination’ predominates over ‘mind’ or ‘reason’.
One interpretation suggests the image references the depressive or melancholy state and accordingly explains various elements of the picture. Among the most conspicuous are:
- The tools of geometry and architecture surround the figure, unused
- The 4 × 4magic square, with the two middle cells of the bottom row giving the date of the engraving: 1514. The square features the traditional magic square rules based on the number 34, and in addition, the square’s four quadrants, corners and center also equal this number.
- The truncatedrhombohedron with a faint human skull on it. This shape is now known as Dürer’s solid; over the years, there have been numerous articles disputing the precise shape of this polyhedron)
- Thehourglass showing time running out
- The empty scale (balance)
- The despondent winged figure ofgenius
- The purse and keys
- The beacon (or comet) and rainbow in the sky
- Mathematical knowledge is referenced by the use of the symbols: compass, geometrical solid, magic square, scale, hourglass.
An autobiographical interpretation of Melencolia I has been suggested by several historians. Iván Fenyő considered the print a representation of the artist beset by a loss of confidence, saying: “shortly before [Dürer] drewMelancholy, he wrote: ‘what is beautiful I do not know’ … Melancholy is a lyric confession, the self-conscious introspection of the Renaissance artist, unprecedented in northern art. Erwin Panofsky is right in considering this admirable plate the spiritual self-portrait of Dürer.”
Dürer’s Melencolia is the patroness of the City of Dreadful Night in the final canto of James Thomson‘s poem of that name.